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2013 July 21

Colleges resist Federal intrusion in teaching

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:38
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Paul Baskin, in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Crusader for Better Science Teaching Finds Colleges Slow to Change, discusses an approach that Dr. Carl Wieman (Nobel Laureate in Physics and long-time physics education researcher) proposed while he was an adviser at the White House:

At the White House, Mr. Wieman tried to figure out what might actually get colleges and their faculty members to adopt proven teaching practices. His centerpiece idea was that American colleges and universities, in order to remain eligible for the billions of dollars the federal government spends annually on scientific research, should be required to have their faculty members spend a few minutes each year answering a questionnaire that would ask about their usual types of assignments, class materials, student interaction, and lecture and discussion styles.

Mr. Wieman believed that a moment or two of pondering such concepts might lead some instructors to reconsider their approaches. Also, Mr. he says, data from the responses might give parents and prospective students the power to choose colleges that use the most-proven teaching methods. He hoped the survey idea could be realized as either an act of Congress or a presidential executive order.

College leaders derided it as yet another unnecessary intrusion by government into academic matters.

Mark Guzdial, who pointed me to this article in his post Carl Wieman Finds Colleges Resist Measuring Teaching, says

I hadn’t heard about this survey, but my immediate thought was, “What a great idea!”  We need better ways to measure teaching (like with Sadler’s recent work), and this seems like a great first step. 

Although I spend a lot of my time reflecting on teaching and trying to come up with better ways to teach my students, I’m afraid I’m with the college leaders on this one, not Wieman and Guzdial.  Forcing faculty to fill out a survey does not result in fruitful reflection, but only in resentment.  Even faculty who care a lot about teaching will see it as a political intrusion on their work, which it would almost immediately become, no matter what Wieman’s intentions.

The answers that faculty would give would be subjected not to scientific analysis (as Wieman and Guzdial hope), but to distortion by political spin artists and educational faddism.  Fearing for their funding, faculty would respond with whatever they thought the politicians and petty bureaucrats running the scheme want to hear—so the results of the survey would be of no scientific value also.

Mark Guzdial asks

Wouldn’t “consequences” be a good thing?  Shouldn’t we reward schools that are doing more to improve teaching and adopt better practices?  Shouldn’t we incentivize schools to do better at teaching?  I guess I’m the one who is naïve—I was surprised that there was so much resistance.

Sorry, threatening to take away research funding for failing to meet a bureaucratic requirement to fill out a meaningless teaching survey is not “incentivizing” schools to do better at teaching.  There is no real connection between filling out a survey and doing better teaching.

Threatening to take away research funding does not “reward schools”, it just adds another meaningless bureaucratic form to fill out.  The large private colleges hire low-level staff to fill out these meaningless forms from funding agencies already, while the faculty at large public universities drown in them.

Having teachers think more about teaching is a good goal, but filling out surveys does not achieve that—indeed it takes away time that they could better have spent thinking about teaching.  For that matter, the goal will be seen to be pushing for particular teaching methods, rather than getting teachers to think about teaching, and I’m not so sure that is a worthy goal.  I’ve seen how badly things can turn out when teachers are forced to use methods that do not resonate with them.

Back to Paul Baskin’s article:

Leaders of the Association of American Universities “believe that all faculty would like to teach better, which I agree with,” Mr. Wieman says. “But what they do not fully appreciate is how heavily the incentive systems are weighted to neglect teaching.”

This is certainly true and becoming more so as public universities are defunded by the states. When a bigger chunk of the budget comes from research than from teaching, administrators bend over backwards to attract and accommodate the highly funded researchers. Shut down a department’s only undergrad teaching lab to expand the operation of a researcher who brings in bucks (but has few grad students)? No problem! (You can tell I’m not happy with our dean’s latest bone-headed decision.)

Paul Baskin paraphrases a professor who has collaborated with Wieman:

Compelling faculty to complete a survey in the hope of prodding them to reconsider their teaching approach would probably work, if not for the fact that it might also alienate too many people, says John P. Cumalat, a professor of physics at Colorado. In some ways, that White House proposal reflects the hard-driving determination Mr. Wieman showed when they worked together, Mr. Cumalat says.

I’m one of those faculty who would be alienated—I resent one-size-fits-all bureaucratic mandates in education. I find some of the requirements imposed on me already to be onerous, even if I strongly support the goals of the requirement. (For example, I resent the requirement that as a faculty member I must sit through a badly prepared online tutorial on sexual harassment. I teach about the subject in my how-to-be-a-grad-student course, and bring in our Title IX officer on campus to help out, but the bureaucratic requirement to do the stupid online tutorial irks me no end.)

So, I agree with the goals (as Baskin summarizes them):

Mr. Wieman has never pushed for any specific approach to remedying the educational problems he sees, but rather for a combination of key elements. In general, he has argued that students need more hands-on exposure to scientific discovery, helping them learn—and be inspired—by approximating the real-world environment in which they would work, with realistic tasks and problems.

But I’m pleased that the coercive survey was not adopted as a way to bludgeon faculty to adopt the goals.

1 Comment »

  1. First they came for the K12 teachers, and now they come for us. Thanks for the details you provide.

    Comment by Sue VanHattum — 2013 July 21 @ 14:27 | Reply

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